I know you do not come here for the latest in pop culture news and analysis. Neither do I. But I have to rant more than a Tweet’s worth (i.e., more than 140 characters, likely more than 140 words — I’ll let you know when we get there) , and this is as good a place to do it as any. In fact, it’s the best place, since (a) I expect many of you might be thinking quite similar thoughts as I am, and can help me out here, and (b) those who haven’t had these thoughts, but actually think differently, can contribute to the conversation/our collective enlightenment on this tangled mess. Needless to say, if you don’t come here for pop culture news and analysis for a reason, and that reason is it’s disinteresting to you, sorry! Move on! I’m taking a pop culture water cooler break here!
There may not be an easy summary to the tangled mess, but if there were, it’d have something to do with the noxious mixture of a well-intentioned reference to gay people’s existence and (ooo! that was 140 characters!) a deeply-founded fear of (skittishness about? does the distinction make a difference?) representing us in three-dimensional, un-caricatured ways in high-stakes, big-money media products. Clarifying and enumerating details to follow in tirade below. Er, make that lengthy, brazenly unedited tirade below.
I just watched the 19th episode of Glee, “Dream On.” You can watch the whole thing for yourself here at Hulu. Spoiler alert! This whole rant is a big ole, meandering SPOILER! So go watch it now if you want to stay unsullied for your viewing experience. Then get back here.
Glee, for those not in the know (what am I saying?) under a cathode ray tube-TV-sized rock, is a wildly popular FOX television show centering around the travails of a motley — and talented — crew of high school glee club members somewhere in Ohio. It’s been called the queerest show on network television right now, what with its featuring one out gay male character (Kurt), a bisexual character or two (cheerleaders Santana and Brittany), an out lesbian in one leading role (Jane Lynch as sadistic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester) and an out gay man a key member of the ensemble (Broadway’s Jonathan Groff), and a whole musical genre made grand by and arguably incapable of surviving without gay people (musical theater). As the inimitable and must-readable Dorothy Snarker puts it: “Singing, dancing, snarking. Jane Lynch, jazz hands, gay cheerleaders. That’s just quality television, right there.” (Read up on her Glee bits here. And if you get lost there because she’s such a witty witty writer, I won’t blame you. I’ll still love you the next time you remember to happen by here. If you can tear yourself away from her blog. Now back to rant.)
Glee’s co-creator Ryan Murphy even burnished his bona fides as a champion for queer people in pop culture early last week when he called for a boycott of Newsweek for publishing a “blatantly homophobic” screed (written by, wait for it… a gay journalist!) against out gay actors playing straight characters, one of whom was a Glee regular. (Michael Jensen at AfterElton.com here on the initial Newsweek piece, which appeared in the May 10th issue; Jensen followed up with a piece reprinting Kristen Chenowith’s righteous response to the Newsweek essay, and a really interesting, big picture analysis, seemingly defending the journalist, but mostly directing our attention past him, by Aaron Sorkin at the Huffington Postlast week).
So you have it all lined up so far? Cheerful, plucky, gay-friendly ensemble TV show employs and portrays gay people; cranky, narrow-minded (eh? self-hating? much?) gay journalist critiques out gay actors for, well, acting (and all of them extremely successfully, from the standpoint of the craft and its professional recognitions) ; plucky gay-friendly TV show folk defend their queer brethren and call for a boycott of the magazine publishing the retro homophobic tripe. That’s all the lead up to this week’s episode, in which out gay actor Neil Patrick Harris cameos as a former glee club star come back to haunt the high school as a budget-slashing school board member. So far as I could see, most of the buzz (okay, I didn’t look much past Twitter and a few hasty Google searches) seems to have been about how convincing Harris was as a straight guy. Even humorously so, since he and fellow out queer actor Jane Lynch have a scene in which sparks fly and intimations are made of immanent intimacy.
Okay, okay, fine. EXCEPT. In all the buzz over the Newsweek piece and Neil Patrick Harris’ repudiation of its thesis in last night’s episode, something seems to be overlooked. Rachel, the lead character has two dads (great!), neither of whom has ever appeared on the show (huh?). The mom of another lead, Finn has appeared several times, and a rich plot line has emerged about his father, who was killed in the first US-Iraq war. Another character, Kurt, our sumptuous and fabulous out gay character, has a reasonably nuanced and often deeply compelling relationship with his father, who has also appeared several times (his mother is deceased). We’ve seen the two (condemning) parents of another secondary character, Quinn. That makes a total of five parents we’ve seen (if we count the photographs of Finn’s dad and his urn, both of which have appeared on screen).
Which parental round-up brings us to a question that should be obvious: Where. The f***. Are Rachel’s. Dads?
I know the staccato period thing makes that hard to read, so I’ll try again in another way: WHERE THE F*** ARE RACHEL’S DADS?
Rhetorical question. Actual answer: Still offscreen. Rachel, when depicted at home, floats around in a parent-less world, or rather, in her bedroom, which conveniently has a bathroom adjoining it so we don’t have to run a camera down a hall and see, oh, A FATHER. Admittedly, the show focuses on the kids, so the parents appear only when they drive the kids’ storylines forward. And a teenaged gal who spends a lot of time holed up in her bedroom (singing into her brush in front of the mirror) is not implausible. But hello. The reason Rachel is a Broadway-bound triple-threat phenom has GOT to have one eeensy, teensy bit to do with who the hell her parents are. Yes? Yes? Big-ass, nelly-ass, Garland/Streisand/Gaga-loving queens, yes? At least ONE of them? I mean, her jazz hands prowess is not a coincidence, right? But so far, we’ve had practically ZILCH development on this angle. The writers better the hell have something great in the works, is all I can say. Though the faces in the one quickie flash we saw of them (interracial couple? I can’t barely even remember, the flash on their framed photo was so quick and so early on and never again to be re-flashed) did not reveal any actor known to me or my culture-vulture actor-attuned partner as a character or supporting actor. I hope to simply be underinformed here.
Okay, lodge that question in your heads (if you haven’t watched the show), and then reflect on the fact that the first time we see any adult related to Rachel, the first time we latch on to a face connected to her in any sort of parental way is — “No!” you say! “Don’t say it!” you say! “No they did not!” you say! But sadly, I have to say, “Yes, they did!” — Rachel’s birth mother! Yes! Referred to simply as her “mother”! And she appears because — “No!” you say! “Yes! I say — she appears because Rachel’s dads “never said anything about her” and Rachel is dying to know who she is. Yes! Apparently, gay parents can raise a kid for 16, 17 years and never speak to her about her biological origins! Even though we’re the only parents who actually HAVE any real interesting things to SAY to our kids about their biological origins! Which our kids might be interested in, and ask us about! (With everyone else, it’s all, “Eeeeeew, gross, Mom/Dad!” and then the fingers are plugged in the ears and loud, alphabet song singing commences.) Amazing, right! Who knew?
Aside #1: And no, I’m not minimizing her curiosity about meeting her birth mother. I’m maximizing the absence of her fathers and her relationship to them before this plotline emerged.
Aside #2: By stroke of blazing coincidence, Jeff DeGroot at COLAGE, the national organization for people with LGBT/Queer parents and their families, just completed a year-long project in which he surveyed and interviewed COLAGErs and produced a guide designed to “to answer the questions and address the concerns of current and future generations of donor-conceived children.” It’ll be released this Saturday, May 22 — California’s first annual Harvey Milk Day. More info here. Now back to rant again.
Rachel is on a quest to find out about her birth mother (I have to say it that way, if they won’t on the show), and — “No!” (you) “Yes!” (me) — she’s played by a huge actor! Who’s already got an established, intrigue-filled role on the show as the director of the arch-rival school’s glee club! And wait! Yes! She originated Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and in London! None other than Idina Menzel! But wait! It gets worse! She’s heart-sick about having “given away” Rachel, and the musical number they do (not in the “real life” part of the plotline, but in the imaginary duet-world of musicals) is… wait for it… Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables! Yes! The two of them, two of the most kick-arse Broadway beltin’ performers, singing arguably the best-known and most emotive song from one of the most popular musicals in Broadway’s history (for the Les Mis innocents: it’s the third longest-running show of all time; it’s still running in London; it was nominated for 12 Tonys, won 8, etc. etc.). Except that “she” is swapped for the “he” in this verse, as Rachel sings it:
And still I dream she’d come to me
That we would live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather.
Rachel goes on:
I had a dream my life would be
So different from the hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
That “hell” she’s living would be, wait. Yes! The hell of living with two loving parents who are both men. I know, I know. It’s drama. It’s fake musical number land. But what the f***? How can the writers of a show renowned for trying to humanize not just gay people, but gay youth and the kids of gay parents, have left an absence so gaping, a hole in their script so big you could drive a whole 19th c. French battallion through it? It’s as jaw-dropping as an out gay journalist arguing that out gay actors are, ipso facto, implausible as straight characters.
Okay, I’ve gone on and on. About a damn TV show about a bunch of high school kids singing musical numbers on stage and in imaginary musical number land. No, I do not look to mass culture/ for-profit media for the big civil rights barricade-storming. But for all its genre-bound limitations and its having swung and missed on a good handful of other matters, I, like lots of other folks, had begun to expect more of the writers on this show. This “queerest” of network TV shows. Adored by millions of people, chief among them (I’ve got to believe) impressionable high school students, who feel, usually rightly, that the drama which drives their lives is often truthfully, often delightfully portrayed by an extremely talented ensemble. Which whole ensemble is invited to come and perform at the White House for its Easter Sunday Egg Roll, fer chrissakes. These are the young people who will soon be voting in or out our civil rights over the next critical, sure-to-be-action-packed decade. I care what they think and think they know about me and my family.
When we were watching the Rachel story line in the episode, all’s the beloved and I could do was mutter shocked expletive deletives to each other. Which increased to a crescendo when we saw the writers paired birth mother and her crypto-orphaned daughter in the heart-tugging Les Mis duet. In a fit of misguided pique, the beloved said she would boycott Glee. But I know that wouldn’t last a week. It’s a great show. I had thought. Now I think, shit. Is it really that hard to do? To take on complex issues with heart and mind together, neither one compromised, and the both not compromised by the chronic, criminal underestimation of what actual people in the viewing audience are capable of taking in? Don’t answer that. On second thought, please do.
I know same-sex and/or trans parents must have appeared in more richly nuanced portraits on TV already elsewhere. Right? And I’ve just gotten lax on my TV viewing habits since getting all tied up with this parenting gig. Right?
I know there’s a lot more to say here, and I’ve blown through over ten times 140 words to get this far (much less 140 characters). I’m amazed if you’ve gotten this far with me. But a rant, by definition, is not rigorously edited.
By the same token, I probably could have done it all in a Tweet, with characters to burn:
Et tu, Glee?
Or on a slightly less melancholy note,
Elphaba ate Rachel’s gay dads, and I’m not very happy about it.